Thursday, 19 February 2009 12:00 AM
The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) launches today in central London with addresses of support from Professor Richard Dawkins, Professor A C Grayling and Polly Toynbee.
The AHS will support established and newly-forming atheist, Humanist and secular student groups and give them a national voice. It will provide a network, resources and a joint platform for these societies and make sure that their needs and views are being considered on the national and international level. The AHS is affiliated with the British Humanist Association (BHA).
In the wake of the successful 'atheist bus campaign', the 2009 Darwin celebrations and an increased prominence for non-religious campaigns, the launch of the AHS marks the new mobilisation of the UK's non-religious student majority and is the start of several nationwide events and campaigns.
Supporting the launch of the AHS, Richard Dawkins said, 'Public statements of non-belief are treated as threatening, an affront to the religious, while the reverse is not true. More concerning is the enduring assumption that religious belief does not have to earn respect like any other view, an approach that has caused politicians and public figures across the UK to withdraw from asking the vital question: why is religion given such special status in government, culture and the media? Why is belief in a higher power an indication of greater moral fortitude, character and acumen? The AHS says publicly that it isn't; on the contrary, beliefs that are unsupported, bigoted or demand special privileges should always be challenged. No opinion should be protected from criticism simply by virtue of being religiously held.'
A C Grayling said, 'As well as making the case for reason and science, it is great to know that the AHS will be standing up against religious privilege and discrimination. All people are entitled to their beliefs but we secularists (whether religious or humanist) are right in arguing that the state must be entirely neutral in these matters. A situation where the religious beliefs of a few may dictate the personal choices of everyone - in abortion, for example, or assisted suicide - is quite wrong. Yet some religious groups defend and even aim to expand their considerable privileges - public money for their "faith-based" schools, seats in the House of Lords, exemption from laws inconvenient to their prejudices. The AHS shows that increasing numbers of young people are unwilling to put up with it.'
Chloë Clifford-Frith, press officer for the AHS, said, 'We live in a world where religious governments execute adulterers and homosexuals, deny women and minority groups basic freedoms, circulate fraudulent claims about contraception and scientific research and create laws that protect them from criticism. We are privileged, in such a world, to live in a country where we can even have this debate, and as such we have a duty to bring it into our universities and beyond.'
Norman Ralph, President of the AHS, emphasised that, in addition to challenging organised religion in the UK, the AHS also presents a positive message of community and understanding. Bringing together diverse student societies from across the country, it will support students who wish to establish a safe space for discussion of atheist, Humanist and secular issues and defend their right to express themselves without censure. Further campaigns will promote the public understanding of science, and the importance of ethical values derived from a rational approach to reality. 'We want to celebrate knowledge and human endeavour', he added, 'Humanity should take responsibility for its flaws, and also take credit for its successes, not abscond responsibility to an imaginary father figure. We're about celebrating, learning and making the most of the one life we have.'
Polly Toynbee said, 'I am honoured to be present at the birth of this new movement. We need to oppose zealotry and fanaticism of all sorts by promoting the positive and liberating case for believing that life on earth is precious because the here and now is all there is and that our destiny is in our own hands. The Humanist view of life is progressive and optimistic, in awe of human potential, living without fear of judgement and death, finding enough purpose and meaning in life, love and leaving a good legacy. It is great to see these values being taken up by today's students. I'm sure the AHS will go from strength to strength and keep the rational and ethical humanist tradition alive both on- and off-campus'
For more information contact Chloë Clifford-Frith: email@example.com, 07963143065, 01517029025